Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Why Not Juries For Supreme Courts?

The jurors' comments following Jacko's acquittal showed the strength of the ancient jury system. The US and UK could use that strength to control their judicial despotism.

Jurors remained guarded about details of their 30 hours of deliberations over seven days but offered some insight during a news conference, saying they were irritated by the testimony of the accuser's mother, who at one point snapped her fingers at them.

"I disliked it intensely when she snapped her fingers at us," said one juror, a woman. She said she thought to herself, "Don't snap your fingers at me, lady."

Whatever your views on the guilt or innocence of Jackson (I have none), this was the jury system working as designed. The charges were based on assertions by a few people, so the problem was to assess their credibility. And the jury decided that they were not credible.

We assess people's credibility in every interaction, every day. But for many reasons - prejudice, pressure, culture, we can get it wrong. The jury system fixes this problem by bringing together 12 people and requiring that they agree.

There's a lot of experimental evidence that groups of people solve such problems much better than individuals. The Wisdom of Crowds, by James Surowieki, offers a great primer on the topic.

A Brit scientist, Frances Galton, pioneered this field, in 1906. At a Country Fair, he witnessed a competition for folks to guess the weight of meat a live ox would provide after being slaughtered and dressed. 800 people tried their luck. Many were butchers and farmers, but many had no inside knowledge of cattle. Galton took all the guesses, graphed them (they formed a classic bell curve), and worked out the mean, which was 1,197 pounds. The actual weight turned out to be 1,198 pounds, so the crowd's judgment was essentially perfect.

This is one of my favorite stories about experimental science: anyone can do it (Galton was 85 at the time), you need to be constantly inquisitive, mundane topics can yield stunning insights. And you should always run the numbers and ignore opinions and predispositions.

So here's my suggestion: add juries to all State and Federal Supreme Courts and give them the final decision. No need for filibusters or nuclear options or appointing left- or right-tilted judges. Just give the power to the people - collectively, they know best.